A Visitation from Grace

 

No one in Blackshear knew much about Grace. Some folks whispered that Grace was around when Blackshear was a respite for slavers coming off the ocean with new slaves. Say that Grace heard the cries of slaves and got fed up. Say that Grace led a charge one Thursday morning by climbing the platform steps of the slave auction block and telling slaves to meet her at the lakefront. The brave ones, the ones not quite broken from their journey, followed Grace to the lake.

“Rise up. Tell them to stop choosing us,” Grace whispered into Lake Blackshear. The lake gurgled and forced itself through the barnacled hulls and crushed each ship. After that uprising white folks stayed clear of Blackshear and Grace. They said Grace was a haint and one look from her meant misfortune. Instead, white folks lived in Cornflower, Sylvester, or Moot County.

Most of the young folks in Blackshear just shrugged Grace off and said Grace was old as hell. She lived on the banks of Lake Blackshear in a house never wind whipped or eroded by the water.

 

* * *

 

Every morning Grace hobbled to the middle of town called Gomorrah Square to lead morning service.  Under her arm was a dented black box. Visible red and metal scratches jumped from each dent. It was the speakerbox.  Older folks knew the speakerbox called folks to order to handle business like the baritone voice of a deacon for Sunday morning church service. Grace huffed and climbed each rickety stair to the top of the wooden platform where slaves were once auctioned and cranked the box. With each turn of the crank the veins in Grace’s hand showed they were working, popping through her thin wrinkled paper skin. The speakerbox cackled and wheezed until the faint sound of a man’s voice pushed through the static. Grace steadied herself on the box and like magic the box grew loud. The man’s voice, a quiet vibrato, snaked through the square and around Blackshear.

“Freddie’s dead.” The sounds of guitar and violin strings wrapped around the town and a flute like a chirping bird broke through the remaining cackling and pops of noise.

“That’s what I said.”

People stirred from their houses and headed to Gomorrah.

“Freddie’s dead.”

When they arrived in the square folks saw Grace on the platform, strumming her long brown fingers on the side of the box and looking past Gomorrah to her house. She never took tally of who came to morning service.

“Freddie’s dead.” The strings and trilling flute agreed with the singing man.

The speakerbox shuts off and Grace speaks into the crowd.

“Freddie was chosen.  We’ll stop choosing them when they stop choosing us.”

People stood silent and shuffled in place. Nobody looked for Freddie’s parents. Menfolk anxiously rubbed their chins. Womenfolk clutched their chests and swayed in place. After Grace’s announcement, folks slumped off to their houses. They shifted through their cupboards to find something to cook and share with Freddie’s parents. Blackshear pours into Freddie’s house. They pat the hands and heads of Freddie’s mother, father, and sister. Freddie’s sister tries to pull away from each touch. Freddie’s cousin, Almond, stews in rage upstairs away from the outpouring of condolences. His brother, Rello, was chosen last month. The flood of black and brown and yellow and red folks into each other’s homes to face the consequences of being chosen is not new.  It is tradition.

 

* * *

 

Mayfield lived in Grace’s basement. He just finished high school and wasn’t sure about going to college. Since he was ten years old, Mayfield bounced from house to house after his mother, Fancy, ran off with a truck driver. Fancy never sent for Mayfield or sent word asking how he was doing. Mayfield slipped further and further into himself, hoping to scrape together pieces of love from the memories of his mother and each place he stayed. Grace let Mayfield live with her his senior year. She gave him space, only calling to him to fetch breakfast and supper or go to church. “You grown,” Grace told him. “You can stay long as you can stand it. Just respect my house and always answer when I call you, hear?”

Mayfield nodded and shrugged his heavy shoulders. Grace didn’t take it as disrespect, the man child couldn’t speak. Mayfield turned and shuffled his feet in and out of his flip flops against the aging hardwood floors. They groaned under his weight.  In the basement Mayfield stretched out on the brown and yellowing sofa bed and stared at the ceiling. He had a television but rarely turned it on. He thumped his throat with his forefinger and thumb. The itch climbed above his Adam’s apple into the back of his throat. Thumping his throat scratched some of the itch. The rest of it flared up like an allergy and made Mayfield click the back of his throat with his tongue.

Mayfield never went to Gomorrah for morning service because he heard the speakerbox from the basement. Because Grace’s house faced Gomorrah Mayfield and Grace met eyes every morning while the song played. He pushed his fingers through the white venetian blinds to see who came to the square each day.  Most of the time it was the Davises, the Teaks, the Bluffs, the Grays, and the Crisps.  Everyday there was Mr. Earnest and Grace. Mr. Earnest stood on the right side of Grace by the platform. He was Grace’s fetcher. Mr. Earnest fetched the chosen. Today wouldn’t be any different.

 

* * *

 

After the people dispersed from morning service Grace hobbled back down the platform steps. Mr. Earnest reached out to grab Grace’s hand to help her on the last step. She steadied herself on Mr. Earnest and pointed out into the square. The choice was made and Mr. Earnest nodded. Grace walked back to her house. She’d be back in the evening to close out the day. Grace knocked on the basement door. Creaking stairs let her know Mayfield was coming to answer it. Mayfield fumbles with the knob and opens the door.

“Be ready to go to Gomorrah this evening,” Grace say. Mayfield stares blankly through her.

“You hear me, boy? Be ready to go.”

Mayfield stares blankly through Grace. Something pops in his chest. He thumps his throat with his thumb and forefinger.

“Mr. Earnest’ll come fetch you this evening.” Grace closes the door.

Later that evening Mayfield stares at the lamplight that flickers throughout the basement. He clicks the back of his throat with his tongue. Chirping crickets and lapping waves fill the air.

There’s a knock at the door. Mayfield ignores it. The rapping at the door grows into pounding. Mayfield ignores it. The door sounds like it is exploding and Mayfield jumps up. He hits his head on a shelf. He grunts and blinks hard to focus his sight. Heavy boots clump down the stairs. Mayfield sees Mr. Earnest in overalls and a green and yellow John Deere hat. He stands like a man who was once a terror. Mr. Earnest towers compared to Mayfield’s slouch.  

“Time to go, boy,” Mr. Earnest says. “Don’t make me move furniture to get you out of here.”

Mayfield unwillingly released a sigh. He shakes his head no.

Freddie’s ass is dead not me! Mayfield thinks.

Mayfield doesn’t break eye contact with Mr. Earnest. He moves behind his unmade sofa bed.

I can remember myself! I’m my own hope!

“Don’t make this harder than it is,” Mr. Earnest says. “You a biggun. And I’m getting old, shit.”

Mayfield flicks a bird in Mr. Earnest’s face. Mr. Earnest’s face scrunches up and he clinches his fists.

I’m my own hope!

Mayfield bends over and looks for something to fight back. He grabs the brick that steadies the sofa bed. Mayfield raises the brick and his arm like a quarterback. Grace hollers from the top of the basement stairs like God.

“Mayfield! When I call you answer, boy! Mr. Earnest is doing this for me!”

Mayfield lowers the brick but grips it in his hand until his knuckles turn white.

“When I call you answer! That was the deal.”

Another whimper escapes Mayfield’s scratchy throat.

“You got chose boy. Chose is chose.” Mr. Earnest inches closer to Mayfield. Mayfield drops the brick.

“Chose is chose.”  Mayfield crumples onto the bed into a heap of sobs. Mr. Earnest hoists him up by his black shirt and out of his flip flops. Mayfield fixes his gaze on the ground. Grace meets them at the stairs.

“Day is gone,” Grace said. “Hope God is nigh.”

Mayfield and Mr. Earnest arrive in Gomorrah. A white van with open back doors was parked in front of the platform with two men in uniform.

“He got chose?” One of the uniformed men reached out to take Mayfield’s arm. Mayfield doesn’t look up from the ground.

“Yep.” The men nod and throw Mayfield into the back of the van. The sound of slammed doors startles tears from Mayfield’s eyes. There was no love left to be scraped.

 

***

 

No one in Blackshear knew much about Grace. She lived on the banks of Lake Blackshear in a house never wind whipped or eroded by water. Every morning, Grace hobbled to Gomorrah Square and huffed up the steps to the top of the wooden platform. Grace cranked the speakerbox. Like magic the gentle vibrato of a man’s voice snaked through the square against flutes, guitars, and violin strings.

“Mayfield’s dead,” the voice cackles.

“That’s what I said.”